Ota Benga came to the Bronx Zoo by way of Africa. He was a member of the Pygmy tribe, standing less than five feet tall when totally erect. He had been captured by a rival tribe and was sold into slavery. A man named Samuel Verner bought Ota Benga for a pound of salt. His intentions in doing so were something less than altruistic: he’d been sent to Africa to bring back Pygmies to be put on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. Who did Ota Benga meet in St. Louis? None other than Geronimo, and the two struck up a close friendship. After the World’s Fair ended, Verner took Benga back to Africa, where he married and was content to settle back into his way of life. After his wife died from a snake bite, however, Ota Benga pleaded with Verner to take him back to America.
By that time Verner already had his dirty hands kneading more dirty dough and so he placed the little Pgymy into the case of the Director of the Bronx Zoological Gardens, William Temple Hornaday. Needless to say, there have been many people at zoos whose very humanity should rightly be called into question, but Hornaday was perhaps their Zeus. In a move as capitalistically brilliant as it was heartless, Hornaday decided to put Benga on display inside a cage alongside an orangutan and a parrot. Benga slept in a hammock and sharpened his bow and arrow skills. To emphasize his point that all Africans were cannibalistic savages, he also made sure to keep Benga’s cage littered with bones.
It may make you feel a little better to realize that Hornaday’s monstrous desire for money did not go unnoticed. Outrage was quick to develop and protests immediately took place. Hornaday responded at first by reminding them that Benga was free to leave his cage whenever he wanted. Or so he claimed, at any rate. Even so, public pressure was simply too much and Benga finally was given completely freedom from his enforced presentiment as animal in a cage. Unprepared for life in these United States or with a way back to Africa, Benga chose to stay inside the Zoo, helping workers throughout the Zoo. He was still pretty much on display, however, as his curious size and fame still brought visitors who now could actually get close to their prey. He was often teased mercilessly and hunted down by idiots of all ages. At one point a crowd proved too menacing and Ota Benga withdrew his bow and launched an arrow into one of his stalkers.
The result was banishment from the Zoo. He was rescued from certain death on the streets of the Naked City by an orphanage for colored kids in Brooklyn. While there he learned to truly become an American by learning to play baseball and speaking English. Later he would travel to Dixie and spend a semester at a Baptist seminary in Virginia. Raised by Baptists and showing an aptitude of sports, he might well have gone on to become a Republican politician, but for the fact that he was too small and immigrant besides. Realizing he could never hope to raise enough cash to pay his way back to Africa, Ota Benga became more and more depressed. One night he stole a gun and shot himself in the heart. A humanitarian to the end, William Hornaday had this to say: “He would rather die than work for a living.”